Amidst the gas lamp shadows former soldier-turned-mercenary John Vanguard hunts criminals at the behest of his corrupt employer, Captain Felix Sanquain. Shamed by his deserter past and seeking to make amends for his many misdeeds, a chance encounter with Tarryn Leersac – a skilled young would-be-assassin fallen from the graces of high society – leads Vanguard to become an unlikely mentor.
Charged with hunting down the killer of two guards left washed up on the banks of the canal, the further Vanguard delves into the underbelly of the city the more he finds himself entangled in a web of secrets and lies. A prominent aristocrat is missing. Crime lords, con men and harlots run amok and the city teeters on the brink of another revolution.
With his already precarious reputation hanging by a thread, Vanguard must piece together how and why the last war came to pass, find a way to earn redemption for his mistakes and come to terms with the past in a city where few survive, and even fewer can be trusted.
A Grimdark novel with elements of adventure and gaslight fantasy, ‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ explores themes of redemption, loyalty, and betrayal against the backdrop of a world where survival often means compromising your values.
‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ is an adult fantasy novel and as such, contains adult themes and language.
ALSO REVIEWED AT: Amazon, Goodreads, The StoryGraph
It is an unfortunate truth of the world that people will always want to soil beautiful things. They cannot simply let them be. It is why there will always be footprints in the freshly fallen snow. Flowers will grow from the earth and somebody will always want to pluck off the petals.
Change drifts on the wings of revolution in We Men of Ash and Shadow, HL Tinsley’s gritty and captivating Dark Fantasy debut. With flavors of mystery noir, this book tells of a city firmly crushed under the boot of tyranny, while the whispers of an uprising begin to emerge from the underground. A tale whose tone is built upon crippling misplaced guilt and the foreign concept of redemption, Tinsley crafts an investigation that takes its readers along a path paved with lies and blood. In order to attempt to restore a city to its former glory, one must choose a side. But doing so could lead to catastrophic consequences.
This story takes place in the city of D’Orsee, a dark, subdued setting in a constant state of unrest, where everyone and everything has its place. The city itself is blanketed in gloom and apathy where its denizens can move neither up nor down, only side to side. The affluent live in comfort in the Golden Quarter, while those less fortunate are restricted to the Black Zone. The latter consists of various districts each defined with unique decrees, but most are likely to turn a blind eye to the chaos. There are many secrets waiting to be unearthed, but it’s imperative to keep an eye on those shadow-laden alleyways as you attempt to do so. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in D’Orsee, and would’ve loved to have learned a bit more about its history and what keeps the wheels of the machine turning.
D’Orsee is filled to the brim with finely crafted characters that happily reside in the morally gray realm – in a city so despicable, the only way to survive is to play by its rules. We witness events unfurl through the eyes of two men who share a common thread. John Vanguard takes center stage, war veteran turned hired murderer with the ability to hide in plain sight. During his preparations for a particular job, he crosses paths with Tarryn Leersac, a damaged young man barely keeping the monster at bay. Although haunted by memories of war, Vanguard is a relatively reliable narrator that I grew to love and found easy to empathize with. On the other hand, Tarryn’s account of events is generally illustrated by his deep-rooted psychosis, and while he initially appears a victim, his true colors quickly reveal themselves.
Vanguard was not pain and torture, he was not suffering. Vanguard was the split second between life and death; the instant where you saw your life flash before your eyes and you knew, completely and definitively, that you deserved to be where you were right at that moment.
The pasts of Vanguard and Tarryn unveil themselves to readers in glimpses and memories, but the majority of their development occurs during their interactions with secondary characters. In terms of characterization, this is where Tinsley shines. Each auxiliary character has their own dedicated moment in the spotlight, and each is beautifully utilized to deepen our understanding of the main characters. Dialogue, both internal and external, is absolutely fantastic; whether we’re presented with delicious snark to lighten the mood or moments of pained emotion and introspection, it’s too easy to appreciate any and all of these instances. There are quite a few moving pieces in this relatively short novel, but the cohesion the author creates between them is superb.
Much like the setting, the majority of the conflict and action is subdued, but no less visceral than an exemplary epic battle. The city’s citizens exist on a knife’s edge, both literally and figuratively, and the threats of danger and death lurk around each and every corner. Rather than explosive annihilation, Tinsley employs a more roguish approach to gradual ruin. Plotting, intrigue, cruelty, deceit, treachery, all the mechanisms to make you truly loath those pulling the strings. However, once the story reaches its climax, the tone seamlessly transitions into a glorious and turbulent storm of violence and gut-wrenching tragedy. I found this shift to be perfectly executed, the subtle building of tension until the cord finally snaps.
Tinsley pens this tale with strong continuity between the setting, characters, and plot, and I found the way it’s portrayed to be strangely charming. There’s a level of immersion that violently drags readers down into the grit alongside her unfortunate cast, something I always appreciate in any novel I read. Rather than being told what’s happening, you’re being shown, you’re feeling it happen. My only issue with the writing itself lies in the lack of transitions – POV shifts and time jumps occur from one paragraph to another without warning, which often disturbed the flow of this remarkably written narrative.
“We are men of ash and shadow. We endure the darkness so that others might see the dawn.”
We Men of Ash and Shadow is a fascinating delve into the criminal underbelly of a repressed people, as well as an authentic examination of the psychological effects of war and cruelty. While the story itself ties up nicely, the final pages mark the beginning of the next leg of our journey to right the wrongs that plague D’Orsee. Tinsley’s debut is a solid foundation for a potentially exceptional series, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where she takes us next. I highly recommend.
HL Tinsley is the pen name of professional blogger and creative writer Holly Tinsley.
Based in the UK, she is a published author of Fantasy, Gothic Horror and Grimdark fiction as well as a regular contributor to gaming, TTRPG and pop culture websites and blogs. Her work has been featured in Horla Magazine online and by the British Fantasy Society.
Between 2019 and 2020 she had over twenty articles published in the UK, Cyprus, Scotland and Australia covering everything geek-chic from board games to movie releases. She also serves as an editor for her regional talking newspaper, a non-profit initiative bringing local news to the visually impaired.
A keen gamer, what she lacks in skill she more than makes up for in enthusiasm. Brought up on a literary diet of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, she also cites Scott Lynch, Nicholas Eames and Brent Weeks as being among her favorite authors. Holly currently lives with her husband, teenage son, two cats and a perpetually confused Romanian rescue dog who took three years to teach to lie down on command, and who now never does anything else.
Thanks so much for joining us, Holly. Since we already have your official bio, care to tell us about yourself in ten words or less?
A person who argues with their cat thinking they’ll win.
What is “Grimdark”?
The ultimate question. Whenever I get asked, I instinctively look around for someone more experienced and knowledgeable on the subject because I’m not entirely sure I’ve figured it out yet. I know the fundamental principles of the genre, but it is a much-debated topic with many varying opinions. The simple answer is that it’s a genre of fiction that bucks against the tropes of traditional fantasy – the clear cut heroes, the predestined paths, and the irredeemable villains. I think there’s a presumption that Grimdark is always about war and battle. While that is true in many cases, it does narrow the genre a little for me. I think it’s about conflict and survival in the face of dire odds that aren’t going to improve just because you want them to. It’s a genre that creates worlds that are bloody and brutal in which nobody is going to dangle a proverbial carrot of hope in front of you or tell you that everything is going to be alright – because it probably isn’t. To me, Grimdark is an exploration of base nature, instinct, and humanity.
What about the Grimdark and Dark Fantasy genres appeals to you most?
In my opinion, there’s an honesty and rawness to it that you don’t find in other genres – at least, not in the same way. You have these characters living in horrific, violent worlds and experiencing things that can be fantastical and improbable, yet something about it is uniquely human and real. There’s a sort of tenacity in the will to survive trauma, to face death or war with a bleak humor and resolve that is synonymous with the human spirit. Admittedly, my taste does lean more towards Grimdark with a comedic element so what appeals to me won’t always necessarily appeal to others. I appreciate a good dose of gallows humor. I think Grimdark allows you to push past boundaries that perhaps traditional fantasy doesn’t in a lot of cases. You can be crass and brutal and blunt, not for shock value or effect, but because that’s the reality of it. You look at history – not just the darker periods – and you realise very quickly that many of the principals that we romanticize in a lot of traditional fiction – valour and honour for example – feature very little in reality. It’s lovely to imagine that everything is as clear cut as good and bad, but that’s reducing our experience to something very simple and I want to see the entire spectrum of who we are, what we’re capable of – the complexities and the nuances.
Give us an idea of how We Men of Ash and Shadow came to fruition.
It’s probably not the most ‘fantasy’ answer, but it started when I watched season two of the BBC series ‘Luther’. I ended up writing a short scene after watching the main character – played by Idris Elba – rescue the daughter of a friend who was becoming embroiled in the criminal underworld. I was fascinated by the dynamics of the relationship between this older man and much younger girl and how they could relate to each other despite their differing perspectives. The scene later became the exchange between Carmen and Vanguard in the bathroom at Henriette’s house. Their relationship was the first thing that fell into place and I wanted to see how it would evolve. Funnily enough I was writing a more traditional fantasy at the time and We Men of Ash and Shadow was only ever meant to be a side project. In the end I shelved the other book and ran with this one, and I’m glad that I did, it was the right choice for me.
Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
It got cut from the book quite early on, but originally John Vanguard was part automaton. In some of the first drafts he had a mechanical heart, shoulder and arm but in the end that just wasn’t right for the story or the character. A number of the places featured in the book were named in homage to artists, museums and galleries in France – for example, the name of the city ‘D’Orsee’ was inspired by the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the city of Lycroix is a tribute to Eugene Delacroix, the French romantic artist. I’m also something of a gaming and pop culture geek -Vanguard’s broken pocket watch is a nod to Arno Dorian of Assassin’s Creed Unity.
I’ve always viewed Grimdark Fantasy as a character-centric genre of fiction, where actions and consequences take center stage. Did any of the characters from We Men of Ash and Shadows end up surprising you with the decisions they’ve made?
The only character who surprised me was Cooke – and he probably took the longest to develop. My initial instinct was that he should be more of a general than a politician, but in the context of what he was trying to achieve, it just wasn’t a good fit for him. Cooke is smart enough to know that his strengths lie in his charm and idealism, but that doesn’t necessarily translate well into a figurehead for a revolution. The rest of the characters were pretty much exactly as I imagined them.
What do you hope your readers take away from We Men of Ash and Shadow?
All I wanted to do was write an enjoyable story. Beyond that, I never had any aspirations to make anyone think about a particular theme or subject. If they do, that’s wonderful, but I don’t have any secret agenda, unfortunately. Maybe for the next one.
Are there any particular books that have influenced your writing?
I think it’s a pretty standard answer but, there’s a good reason for that – Terry Pratchett undoubtedly influences the way I write. For me, few people have encapsulated the true nature of ‘civilised’ society so authentically. If we’re talking about single books, I read The Alchymist’s Cat by Robin Jarvis when I was younger – that was like a literary awakening. It’s a beautifully sad and gut wrenching story. In it, I found the authenticity that I mentioned earlier. There was no pretense to it, and that was incredibly refreshing. It still influences me to this day. The antagonist, Leech, was a brilliant example of how you could create an utterly vile yet fragile, sympathetic villain. I couldn’t hate him even when he did hateful things because I felt this loneliness and bitterness right at his core that made him as tragic as he was terrible. When I was developing Tarryn’s character, it was Leech that I had in mind.
If you could go back and change how you approached writing your debut novel, what’s the one thing you’d do differently?
I’d probably sleep more, eat better and reduce my caffeine intake, but seeing as how I’m working on the second book now and doing none of those things so I’m not sure it would be worthwhile. I did go through a period where I was making alterations to the book, changing the story based on feedback in an attempt to please everyone – but then I realised that was impossible. You’ll tie yourself in knots doing that. Now I have a much more pragmatic approach to critique. Take it, absorb it, consider, and filter. I’m more confident now about standing my ground where it comes to elements of the story that are non-negotiable but also a lot more open to accepting that some things work better rewritten or turned around. I think that comes down to having a good editor that you can be honest with and who can be honest with you.
Do you have any recommendations for some great Dark/Grimdark Fantasy stories written by women?
One thing I am passionate about is seeking out and discovering writers who aren’t really in the spotlight yet. I think the best way of doing that is to trawl through sites like Twitter and Wattpad. I’ve spent hours of an evening following bio links and reading short stories and blogs. Not everything you find is going to be gold dust, but there are some real hidden gems out there. Some of the female writers that I’m keen to support and champion are those that are still in the early stages of their journey and as of yet unpublished, which is why I think features like this are vital in keeping those paths open as widely as possible.
One of the fantasy writers I’m looking forward to seeing develop is A.R Frederiksen. Her debut novel is still in the works, but I have read some of her writing and, although it might not be as bleak or dark as my usual choices, there’s just something about it that has a real sense of heart. I’m excited to see the final result when the time comes. Otherwise, I’d highly recommend The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang or In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire.
Writing can be a stressful pursuit. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
Well, the first and most important piece of advice I would give is always to take advice with a pinch of salt. That is not to say you should discard any that you get given. But be realistic about the fact that writing is a personal experience, and what works for one person might not necessarily be the best method for you. A lot of the time, you are going to be feeling your way around, making mistakes, and experimenting. Second to that would be – build relationships. By that, I don’t just mean networking or building contacts. Writing is a fantastic, exhausting, sometimes intoxicating yet often disappointing experience. You will run a gamut of emotions and take some knocks. You need a community of people who understand that around you, peers that you can engage with. That includes readers, reviewers, and bloggers as well. Converse with people – give them your time and attention before AND after you release anything. These people are the support system of the writing world, especially for indie writers. Lastly – work hard. The writing industry is a densely populated, competitive world, and that is the reality of it. Remember that nobody owes you anything, but the more you put into it, the more likely you are to get something back. Be passionate, be patient, and be persistent, take your lumps, and keep on truckin’.
Thank you again for taking the time to have a chat, Holly. Tell us what lies ahead for you!
I’m working on the second book in the series at the moment and tentatively planning to get that done and ready to go by the end of next year. Outside of writing stories, I play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons so I’m hoping to finish writing a heist themed one-shot that’s a loose play on Ocean’s Eleven. I’m in a campaign at the moment where my character is based on a combination of Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones and Clay Cooper from Nicholas Eames’ Kings of the Wyld. I’d also like to think that at some point over the next few months I’ll update my website and blog but going by my previous track record I’m not going to make any promises.